By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights office voiced alarm on Friday at the suspension of the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, calling it a blow to victims of atrocities who have waited decades for justice.
Guatemalan authorities must ensure that his "emblematic" trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, proceeds fairly, it said. It is the first trial against a head of state for genocide by a national court, the U.N. said.
A judge suspended the trial in Guatemala City on Thursday, saying all actions taken since November 2011 are void in the case of the retired general charged with war crimes.
"This is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war, who have been waiting for more than 30 years for justice to be done and for remedies," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a briefing.
Many courageous lawyers, judges and prosecutors had struggled for decades to see that justice is done, he said.
Judge Patricia Flores told the court that the order had come from the country's top courts to suspend the trial because she had been wrongly removed from the case previously, prompting complaints that the ruling made a mockery of justice.
Rios Montt, 86, who ruled between 1982-1983, was ordered to face trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in January to answer for a counterinsurgency plan during the 1960-96 civil war.
"The trial was giving victims the opportunity for the very first time to testify in the same room as high-ranking officers accused of ordering the burning of villages, rapes and executions of more than 1,770 Ixil Maya Indians in 1982 and 1983," Colville said.
Days before an expected judgment in the case, it was a "real slap in the face to the many indigenous women and men who have courageously participated in the trial as witnesses," he added.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay again urged Guatemalan authorities to "uphold their responsibility to guarantee a fair and independent trial", he said.
They must ensure judges and officials can carry out their duties "free from threats, reprisals or undue inducements".
Flores said Guatemala's constitutional court and the supreme court of justice had ordered her to be reinstated and for the case to be rolled back to when she was recused. Prosecutors said they would appeal that ruling.
Colville cited "considerable confusion". "In our view it is essential that the trial continues in one way or another."
"This particular case is really unique. It's a head of state, it is the first time that a head of state has been brought before a national court on the charge of genocide.
"So it's a particularly emblematic case, a particularly important one, not just for Guatemala but for the whole international system of justice," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)